Kombu (昆布 konbu?) is edible kelp from the family Laminariaceae and is widely eaten in East Asia. It may also be referred to as konbu (Japanese), dashima (Korean: 다시마) or haidai (simplified Chinese: 海带; traditional Chinese: 海帶; pinyin: Hǎidài). Some edible kelps in the family Laminariaceae are not always called kombu, such as arame, kurome (Ecklonia kurome) or Macrocystis pyrifera. Most kombu is from the species Saccharina japonica (Laminaria japonica), extensively cultivated on ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea. With the development of cultivation technology, over 90% of Japanese kombu is cultivated, mostly in Hokkaidō, but also as far south as the Seto Inland Sea.
In Old Japanese, edible seaweed was generically called "me" (cf. wakame, arame) in kanji such as "軍布", 海藻 or "和布" were applied to transcribe the word. Especially, kombu was called hirome (from hiroi, wide) or ebisume (from ebisu). Sometime later the names konfu and kofu appeared respectively in two editions of Iroha Jirui Shō in 12th-13th century.
Various theories have been claimed for the origin of the name kombu, with the following two predominant today.
One is that it originated from the On'yomi (Sino-Japanese reading) of the Chinese name 昆布 (kūnbù). The kanji itself already could be seen in Shōsōin Monjo (8th century) and Shoku Nihongi (797) in Japan, and furthermore trace back in China, as early as 3rd century, to the book Wupu Bencao (around 239). Li Shizhen wrote the following in his Bencao Gangmu (1596).
Come to think about it, Wupu Bencao says "綸布 (gūanbù), alias 昆布 (kūnbù)." Then, what is mentioned in the Erya as "(what is pronounced) 綸 resembles 綸. This is in the East China Sea" is kūnbù. The pronouciation of 綸 is 関 (gūan), meaning cord made by blue thread, and got corrupted to 昆 (kūn).— Li Shizhen, Bencao Gangmu
However kūnbù in Chinese and kombu in Japanese are false friends. A first possibility to explain the association arises because descriptions of kūnbù in Chinese documents are vague and inconsistent, and it is impossible to identify to which seaweed the term might have applied. For instance, Chen Cangqi (681-757) noted "kūnbù is produced in the South China Sea; its leaf is like a hand and the size is the same as a silver grass and a reed, is of red purple; the thin part of leaf is seaweed", which is similar to wakame, arame, kurome, or kajime (Ecklonia cava). The difficulty is that, at least in that time, kombu was not produced either in the East nor in the South China Sea. Moreover, following Zhang Yxi, Li Shizhen classified kūnbù and haidai (stands for kombu in Chinese) as different things, and this classification continues in China today.
A second possibility of origin is that the word originated from kompu standing for kombu in the Ainu language. Kompu in Ainu quite resembles gūanbù or kūnbù in Chinese, and it is possible to speculate that one is a loanword from the other.
"Qūan resembles 綸 (lace, cord or rope). This is in the East China Sea." from the Erya (3rd-2nd century BC) and "Gūanbù, alias kūnbù" from the Wupu Bencao (3rd century). Tao Hongjing(456-536) noted kūnbù is edible. As previously mentioned, however, kūnbù can not be identified with kombu. Zhang Yuxi referred to haidai in the book 嘉祐補註神農本草 (1060).
Although archaeological evidence of seaweed is hard to find because of its easy decomposition, some plant remains of wakame seaweed are found in some ruins of the Jōmon Period which leads to the supposition that kombu was also eaten at that time. As to surviving documents, the letters 軍布 (In Sino-Japanese reading 軍 is gun/kun ; 布 is fu/pu/bu) appeared in Man'yōshū and wood strips from Fujiwara-kyō, and may have indicated kombu. The Shoku Nihongi(797) reports: in 797 Suga no Komahiru of Emishi (Ainu or Tohoku region people) stated they had been offering up kombu, which grew there, as tribute to the Yamato court every year without fail. The Engishiki (927) also reports that kombu had been offered up by Mutsu.
During the Muromachi period, a newly developed drying technique allowed kombu to be stored for more than a few days, and it became an important export from the Tohoku area. By the Edo period, as Hokkaidō was colonized and shipment routes were organized, the use of kombu became widespread throughout Japan. Traditional Okinawan cuisine relies heavily on kombu as a part of the diet; this practice began in the Edo period. Okinawa uses more kombu per household than any other prefecture. In the 20th century, a way to cultivate kombu was discovered and it became cheap and readily available.
In 1867, the word "kombu" first appeared in an English-language publication—A Japanese and English Dictionary by James Curtis Hepburn.
Since the 1960s, dried kombu has been exported from Japan to many countries. It was available initially at Asian, and especially Japanese, food shops and restaurants, and can be found in supermarkets, health-food stores, and other nonspecializing suppliers.
Kombu is sold dried (dashi kombu) or pickled in vinegar (su kombu) or as a dried shred (boro kombu or shiraga kombu). It may also be eaten fresh in sashimi.
Kombu is used extensively in Japanese cuisines as one of the three main ingredients needed to make dashi, a soup stock. Kombu dashi is made by putting either whole dried or powdered kombu in cold water and heating it to near-boiling. The softened kombu is commonly eaten after cooking or is sliced and used to make tsukudani, a dish that is simmered in soy sauce and mirin.
Kombu may be pickled with sweet-and-sour flavoring, cut into small strips about 5 or 6 cm long and 2 cm wide. These are often eaten as a snack with green tea. It is often included when cooking beans, putatively to add nutrients and improve their digestibility.
Kombucha 昆布茶, "Kombu tea", is a beverage brewed from dried and powdered kombu. This is sometimes confused with the English word kombucha for the fermented and sweetened tea from Russia, which is called kōcha kinoko (紅茶キノコ) in Japan.
Kombu is also used to prepare a seasoning for rice to be made into sushi.
Nutrition and health effects
Kombu is a good source of glutamic acid, an amino acid responsible for umami (the Japanese word used for a basic taste identified in 1908). Several foodstuffs in addition to kombu provide glutamic acid or glutamates.
Kombu contains extremely high levels of iodine. While this mineral is essential for normal growth and development, the levels in kombu can cause overdoses; it has been blamed for thyroid problems after drinking large amounts of soy milk in which kombu was an additive. Therefore, people suffering from hyperthyroidism should rather eat wakame which contains a lower amount of iodine.
It is also a source of dietary fiber. Algae including kombu also contain an entire families of obscure enzymes that break down complex sugars that are normally indigestible to the human gut (thus gas-causing), including the well-studied alpha-galactosidase and beta-galactosidase.
(Japanese name followed by species)
- Karafuto kombu (Saccharina latissima), contains mannitol and is considered sweeter
- Ma-kombu (Saccharina japonica)
- Mitsuishi-kombu or dashi-kombu (Saccharina angustata), commonly used in the making of dashi
- Naga-kombu (Saccharina longissima)
- Rishiri-kombu (Saccharina ochotensis), commonly used for soup stocks
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